“The Portrait of a Lady: Marriage, Womanhood, and Denial of Self” by Rebecca Nichloson

Henry James, 1913
Henry James, 1913

In Marriage and the New Woman in Portrait of a Lady author Annette Niemtzow states that James’s text “is a record of the thwarted search a woman makes for a vocation; and of her surrender to marriage . . .” (386). James’s portrayal of womanhood in The Portrait of a Lady is, intrinsically, complex and contradictory, if not utterly flawed. At the center of the narrative is Isabel Archer, the novel’s protagonist, whose independent nature, audaciousness and free-spiritedness has led to her being designated, by some, a pre-feminist heroine and by others, such as critic William Bysshe Stein, a “fleshless robot, a contemptuous prig who flaunts her impotent femininity in the guise of innocence”(383). Niemtzow deems the novel “a study of how a woman is to behave if she is to be a lady (386).

She describes Isabel as a character in search of alternatives to the marital union, who suppresses her sexuality as a means of subscribing to “society’s notion of what is decent” (386) and who, inevitably, marries and is faced with the challenge of maintaining her identity and reputation in a social environment in which it is threatened. The designation of Isabel as a pre-feminist heroine is negated when, at the novels end, she returns to Osmond. In doing so, she condemns herself to a lifetime of unhappiness, and the reader is left to ponder a choice that contradicts everything prior to it. The notion of portraiture, as it relates to women, womanhood and marriage, is worthy of consideration. By labeling the text a portrait, James is either depicting what he deems to be his own personal embodiment, or society’s embodiment of womanhood. It, then, becomes necessary to examine not only Isabel’s decision but also the portraiture, or mechanisms of portraiture at work in the text (Niemtzow 377-395, Solomon 395-409).

In Freedom, Self-Obligation and Self-hood in Henry James, author Patrick Fessenbecker asserts that Isabel’s decision to return to Osmond at the end of the novel may be attributed to her being ill prepared for life and vacancies in her logic concerning marriage. It may be the case that Portrait of a Lady is, in some sense, an exploration of the inherent moral or immorality of divorce. Niemtzow states, “Isabel is thinking of disobedience or divorce—we cannot be sure which, though either would be morally culpable . . .” (381). It is necessary to consider the social context in which the novel was written, the status of women in the period and societal perceptions of marriage.

It is also substantial to consider that James, being a product of his social environment, inevitably, views women through a patriarchal lens. I will interrogate James’s notion that Isabel’s choice is, inherently, moral and examine his portrayal of womanhood as synonymous with the denial of one’s self, desires and personal happiness. In the text, womanhood or true womanhood, being a lady, is tantamount with sacrifice; an equivocation I hope to challenge (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-386).

In The Structure of a Portrait of a Lady author Joseph Friend asserts that Isabel’s construction of her life is one of increased juxtapositions. She is, essentially, at war with her own consciousness. James has composed a complex portrayal, as Isabel’s motivations remain a source of scholarly debate. Fessenbecker maintains that, in general, there are three principle stances taken on how Isabel’s decision is interpreted. Here, I will discuss the first. Fessenbecker refers to the essay Revision and Thematic Change in The Portrait of a Lady by Nina Baym and stresses her argument that

“Isabel’s actions are neither explainable from the third-person perspective as the necessary outcome of some convergence of forces, nor are they justifiable from the first-person perspective as the most reasonable and best thing to do” (70).

Image: File
Image: File

It can be asserted, based on arguments espousing that the text is commentary on the immorality of divorce, that Isabel returns to Osmond as a means of avoiding or transcending social stigma. However, Baym’s stance endows the decision with an arbitrary quality. Here, Isabel does not choose Osmond because she believes it is moral, nor is her choice the result of societal forces, as they relate to marriage and the role of women. Baym’s argument asserts that, perhaps, Isabel’s choice is not symbolic but is, simply, an occurrence. Nevertheless, given the position women had in society during the time in which the novel was composed–the widely accepted notion that their principle objective should be to marry, as well as religious associations with such, must have exerted some impact on James’s writing and, subsequently, Isabel’s choice (Fessenbecker 69-95, Friend 85-95, Hendricks 35-43, Niemtzow 381-382, Solomon 395-409).

During the aforementioned historical period, women viewed themselves, primarily, in relation to men and marriage. The task of choosing a husband was considered, perhaps, one if the most important decisions of a woman’s life. The role of the marriage institution in James’s time and the function of women within it, might suggest a diminishment of personal autonomy and independence after a woman enters the above configuration. The confines of marriage were many—the married woman is, for the most part, dependent on the male, who is given authority over all financial resources. Moreover, a woman’s decision to exit the marriage institution, for any reason, is condemned by the social environment. In this regard, it is significant to note the prominent position of religion and religious principles of morality and immorality within the above social context (Bazanella 55-63, Niemtzow 381-382).

Niemtzow suggests that James’s portrayal of marriage in the novel and Isabel’s decision, are due to his personal views and those espoused by his father. It may be the case that Portrait of a Lady is, in some sense, an exploration of the inherent moral or immorality of divorce. The text seems to, in a less than overt manner, examine qualities associated with spirituality, morality and immorality within a religious framework. Although utilization of James’s personal background as a means of considering his representation of marriage and women in his text may be inefficient, it should be taken into account.

James didn’t, particularly champion the marriage configuration and his novel might be and indictment of the marriage institution. With that being said, what, specifically, James is commenting on about marriage is uncertain. For instance, is he criticizing the limitations placed upon women who marry, espousing that marriage equivocates morality, or that divorce equals immorality? Regardless, James’s portrait of women, given the social context in which the novel was composed, must be examined as a product of societal ideals concerning women, marriage and divorce (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-382, Venture 36-50).

Image: File
Image: File

The denial of self and societal representation of the denial of self as inherently moral is demonstrated in James’s depiction of Isabel. It can be asserted that Isabel returns to Osmond because of her own belief that womanhood means morality, and morality means marriage. This belief system may be a factor that enables her to choose Osmond despite her feelings of discontentment. In reference to such, Niemtzow believes that the decision is indicative of “her final acceptance of her oppressive condition . . . [as] predicated on her sense that a woman accepts public responsibilities to the marriage institution” (382).

Thus, it can be asserted, that by acting in opposition to her own thoughts, feelings and sensibilities, Isabel enters the realm of true womanhood or, as suggested by the novel’s title, becomes a lady (Fessenbecker 69-95, Niemtzow 381-382).

Marriage, as a concept, denotes transformation, particularly of the individuals who enter it. The process of transformation, or the assumed process of transformation concerns, both men and women. For one, to enter the marriage institution is to take on new titles and the behavioral responsibilities associated with those titles. When an individual becomes a wife, as opposed to lover or when a male becomes a husband as opposed to suitor, there is a whole range of characteristics that the social environment expects to be evident. In the case of the woman, she is assumed a subordinate of her husband and her life is viewed within the parameters established within the marital framework. Isabel’s choosing of Osmond suggests a willingness to be transformed, to play the designated role and to simultaneously deny and discard her own essence (Niemtzow 381-382).

Criticism of Isabel’s final act is not just in regard to its representation of women and marriage but also, in relation to whether or not the decision contributes to the literary merits of the text. The general consensus has been that there is a dissatisfying lack of resolve at the end of the novel, a sentiment expressed by James himself and referenced by Dominic J. Bazzanella in The Conclusion to The Portrait of a Lady Re-examined. James stated, in anticipated critique of the novel:

“The obvious criticism of course will be that it is not finished-that I have not seen the heroine to the end of her situation-that I have left her en l’air” (55).

Discourse on the ending ranges from doubt as to its authenticity, to praise for its brilliance. Still conclusions about why Isabel returns to Osmond are ambiguous at best and perhaps, inevitably so (Bazzanella 55, Niemtzow 382).

Niemtzow goes on to cite Isabel’s relationship with Henrietta and Ralph, particularly her comment: “If I were afraid of my husband that would be simply my duty. That’s what women are expected to be” (382). She believes this statement to be demonstrative of the tone of discontent with which Isabel is portrayed but nevertheless emphasized that this is at odds with James’s constant act of placing “her into an eternal pit in the name of salvation and blesses her with the title lady, in reward for her moral sacrifice” (382). James’s portraiture complies with society’s perception of women and marriage and the notion that it is immoral for a woman to exit the marital institution even when it is a cause of great displeasure. In regard to Isabel’s return to Osmond, Niemtzow states

“because she finds no options other than marriage. With him, she is not made to feel so passionately those emotions which cripple her, which force her to remember her anatomy more than her mind. Unlike Henrietta, soon to be queen of American journalism, Isabel was drifting aimlessly, with- out a vocation. Osmond and his daughter Pansy give her one” (386).

Perhaps, Isabel’s decision, though not excluded from the aforementioned social forces and their exertion on the lives of women, is an attempt at transcending the limitations placed on her life by gender. The choosing of Osmond may, simply, be the choosing of the lesser of two evils. Moreover, Isabel’s choice, as Niemtzow suggests, may be a coping mechanism, a way of managing her utter discontentment (McMaster 50-66, Niemtzow 381-386, Solomon 395-409, Venture 36-50).

Although no concrete conclusion can be made in reference to what motivates Isabel’s final act, examining it remains of value, as it encourages reconsideration of Isabel’s choices prior. Throughout James’s portraiture, womanhood is presented as synonymous with sacrifice. The act of sacrifice as it relates to self-hood, is depicted as being of great virtue. Isabel’s behavior, or ability to meet behavioral expectations within this framework, are used as the principle means of evaluating her womanhood and determining whether she is worthy of being deemed a lady.

James, overtly or not, is equating morality, concerning womanhood, as the utter denial of self. Whether he is espousing such a notion, providing a portrayal of an instance in which this occurs or offering social commentary on such, is uncertain. However, it is necessary to consider the social context in which the novel was written, the status of women in the period and societal perceptions of marriage. James, being a product of his social environment, inevitably, viewed women through a patriarchal lens and, subsequently, Isabel Archer.

Works Cited
Bazzanella, Dominic. “The Conclusion to “The Portrait of a Lady” Re-examined”
American Literature. Vol. 41. No1. (1969): 55-63. JSTOR. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Fessenbecker, Patrick. “Freedom, Self Obligation, and Selfhood in Henry James”
Nineteenth-Century Literature. Vol. 66. No. 1. (2011): 69-95. JSTOR. Web.
24 Jan 2015.
Friend, Joseph. “The Structure of The Portrait of a Lady” Nineteenth-Century Fiction.
Vol. 20. No. 1. (1965): 85-95. JSTOR. Web. 22 Jan. 2015.
Hendricks, E. Susan. “The Portrait of a Lady” and “Can You Forgive Her” Rocky
Mountain Review of Language and Literature. Vol. 38. No.1/2 (1984): 35-43. JSTOR. Web 4 Mar. 2015.
McMaster, Juliet. “The Portrait of Isabel Archer” American Literature. Vol. 45, No. 1
(Mar., 1973): 50-66. JSTOR. Web. 5. Mar. 2015.
Niemtzow, Annette. “Marriage and the New Woman in The Portrait of a Lady” American
Literature. Vol. 47. No. 3. (1975): 377-395. JSTOR. Web. 28 Jan. 2015.
Solomon, Melissa. “The Female World of Exorcism and Displacement (Or, Relations
Between Women in Henry James’s Nineteenth Century The Portrait of a Lady” Studies in the Novel (Fall 1996): 395-409. ProQuest. Web. 4 Mar. 2015.
Venture, K. Mary. “ The Portrait of a Lady”: The Romance/Novel Duality”
American Literary Realism, 1870-1910. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring, 1990): 36-50. JSTOR. 6 Mar. 2015.

Copyright. © 2015 Rebecca Nichloson. All rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the prior written permission of the creator.


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